I was listening to ABC Radio 702 in Sydney when presenter Wendy Harmer announced that “we have just heard today of the passing of one of Australia’s best loved writers and magazine editors”. There followed the announcement that Richard Neville had died at 74.
Neville is best known in Australia as the co-founder in 1963 of Oz magazine, along with Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh. After a brief announcement, Harmer introduced Walsh, who spoke fondly about the man he called an “old-fashioned idealist”. Walsh revealed what he said had been a “tightly held secret for a long time”; namely, that Neville was a victim of Alzheimer’s disease.
On Monday evening, the ABC’s Q&A presenter Tony Jones began the program by inviting panel guest Germaine Greer to say a few words about the Oz co-founder. Greer had a furious row with Neville about an inaccurate reference to her in his 1995 book Hippie Hippie Shake about the 1960s. All was forgiven, or forgotten, as Greer praised her friend as an unafraid, supple-minded, adventurous, charming man.
On Tuesday the obituaries by Andrew Clark (The Australian Financial Review), Troy Lennon (The Daily Telegraph), Geoffrey Robertson (Fairfax Media) and Richard Walsh (The Australian) were informative, considered and warm. Yet no one told the unvarnished truth.
The fact is that Neville, for all his charm, was a self-confessed pedophile. I became aware of this when I read his book Play Power in 1970. Neville (who was born in December 1941) lived in Britain in the late 60s and early 70s, when he established what turned out to be an unsuccessful British version of Oz. Despite all the hype, Ozwas little more than undergraduate-style softcore pornography.
In Play Power, Neville boasted of having a “hurricane f..k” with a “moderately attractive, intelligent, cherubic, fourteen-year-old girl from a nearby London comprehensive school”. At the time of this sexual encounter, Neville was in his late 20s; that is, about twice the age of the girl.
Moreover, there was no power balance between the two. He had achieved fame because of the, ultimately unsuccessful, obscenity charges laid against Oz in Australia (1963 and 1964) and Britain (1970). And she was a school student. This is the very behaviour that has led to contempt for the likes of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, both of whom hit on underage girls.
In recent days, none of Neville’s friends and associates has mentioned the pedophile confession in Play Power. Nor has anyone referred to Neville’s contribution to the debate on sex when he returned to Australia after the London Oz closed in 1973.
By the time Neville arrived back in Sydney, influential ABC producer and self-proclaimed Marxist Allan Ashbolt had started his leftist stack of the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster. In the first volume of his objective but sympathetic history of the ABC, KS (Ken) Inglis referred to “Ashbolt’s (ABC) kindergarten” of young leftists.
By the mid-70s, Neville was a reporter on the (then) influential Lateline program on what is now termed Radio National. Lateline was overseen by Ashbolt. On July 14, 1975, Neville presented a special program titled Pederasty.
ABC publicity described the program in the following terms: “Pederasty, as defined by the Penguin English Dictionary, is the homosexual relationship of a man with a boy. The subject usually creates feelings of revulsion and disgust with most people. The issues raised by such relationships are discussed by three pederasts.”
Neville invited the men — two of whom were friends — into the ABC Sydney studio to discuss their sex lives. As The National Times reported on July 21, 1975: “During an episode of Lateline … three men described with relish their sexual relationships with teenage boys and a teenage boy described his relations with an older man.” According to contemporary reports, when the boy detailed his first experience with a man, one of the pederasts was heard to moan with delight.
There was no debate on Lateline; only the case for pederasty was heard. The program caused controversy. It was condemned by several Christian clergymen in Sydney including Fred Nile (Festival of Light), Catholic auxiliary bishop Thomas Muldoon and Anglican dean Lance Shilton. There also were secular critics, most notably in The Sydney Morning Herald editorials.
As Inglis documents in This is the ABC, the public broadcaster was split on the issue. ABC managing director Talbot Duckmanton was clearly upset by the program. However, he was overruled by ABC chairman Richard Downing, who had been appointed by Gough Whitlam’s Labor government. Downing told the Herald that “in general, men will sleep with young boys”. He also wrote a letter to the paper on July 19, 1975, calling on Australians to “understand” the urges of pederasts.
No one at the ABC reported the pederasts to NSW Police. And the ABC did not adopt a duty of care with respect to the victims. The victims would be in their early to mid-50s today. That is, they would be younger than some victims who have given evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The Catholic Bishop of Ballarat today accepts responsibility for the sins of omission of one or more of his predecessors in failing to act in response to clerical child sex abuse; likewise the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle.
However, ABC chairman Jim Spigelman, who was a key adviser to the Whitlam government in 1975, refuses to accept any responsibility for the sins of omission of Downing, one of his predecessors.
In personal correspondence with me in March last year, Spigelman dismissed the matter with a jocular comment — declaring that his relationship with Downing “is not an apostolic succession”. It remains to be seen whether the royal commission will take a different view.
Neville was a charming man who died from a dreadful illness. But there is no reason to deny his reprehensible acts in London and Sydney about four decades ago — unless the co-founder of Oz is to be judged by a different standard from others.